Mr Nicholls lived in the sexton John Brown's house adjoining the Church School. A few months after Mr Nicholls' arrival in Haworth, Branwell returned home in disgrace, and Mr Nicholls would have witnessed every stage of Branwell's decline over the next three years, and shared the tragedy of the deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne in 1848-9. By 1850 he would have been more familiar than anyone with the family at the Parsonage.
His proposal of marriage to Charlotte in December 1852 came as a complete surprise to both her and her father. Angered by his curate's presumption, Mr Brontë withheld his consent and Charlotte declined the offer.
‘The spectacle of one ordinarily so statue-like thus trembling, stirred, and overcome, gave me a kind of strange shock. He spoke of sufferings he had borne for months, of sufferings he could endure no longer, and craved leave for some hope. I could only entreat him to leave me then and promise a reply on the morrow. I asked him if he had spoken to papa. He said he dared not. I think I half led, half put him out of the room. When he was gone I immediately went to papa, and told him what had taken place. Agitation and anger disproportionate to the occasion ensued; if I had loved Mr. Nicholls, and had heard such epithets applied to him as were used, it would have transported me past my patience; as it was, my blood boiled with a sense of injustice. But papa worked himself into a state not to be trifled with: the veins on his temples started up like whip-cord, and his eyes became suddenly bloodshot. I made haste to promise that Mr. Nicholls should on the morrow have a distinct refusal.
‘I wrote yesterday and got this note. There is no need to add to this statement any comment. Papa’s vehement antipathy to the bare thought of any one thinking of me as a wife, and Mr. Nicholls’s distress, both give me pain. Attachment to Mr. Nicholls you are aware I never entertained, but the poignant pity inspired by his state on Monday evening, by the hurried revelation of his sufferings for many months, is something galling and irksome. That he cared something for me, and wanted me to care for him, I have long suspected, but I did not know the degree or strength of his feelings. Dear Nell, good-bye.—Yours faithfully,